The charity founded as the Cambridge Preservation Society call out the behaviour of one of Cambridge’s most controversial firms.
- You can read the article by James Littlewood here.
- You can see the proposals from the developers at https://cambridgenorth.co.uk/partners
….and judge for yourselves.
It’s a controversy that future generations will argue over just as the one before my return to Cambridge did with the proposals for the redevelopment of Cambridge Station. On my way back home today I was reminded of the blogpost by Cambridge PPF.
Back in 2017 The Guardian’s Architecture Correspondent Olly Wainwright wrote about what had been going wrong with the station redevelopment – you can read it here. He refers to the loss of civic facilities – which Richard Taylor wrote about in 2010 which you can read here. It will remain a mystery to me as to how Cambridge City Council got out-negotiated over this. Something for future historians to research? Because for better-or-worse (and there are those who think the new-look Cambridge Station is splendid – let’s not pretend everyone thinks the same as me!) it is now part of our city’s history just as the destruction of The Kite – which is now a one of the early core parts of Cambridge University’s architecture degree undergraduate course.
I will always be of the view that the whole thing was a missed opportunity for our city. It’s easy to say that what we have now is better than what was there – because what was there was a disused industrial site that in a previous era was the Fosters Mill.
The same goes with the redevelopment of the old Cattle Market site – now Cambridge Leisure Park – which I wrote about in 2016 along with other developments nearby – including The Marque and Belvedere. It was these experiences that really focused my thinking around systems and structures when it came to how our cities function – and in particular my home town of Cambridge.
Potholes, broken glass, traffic jams. Traffic jams!
Here’s me moaning about bus queues earlier today at Addenbrooke’s.
In all my years going to and from the hospital, I’ve never seen the queues back up to Robinson Way. Credit to the bus drivers for getting us on as quick as they could, but the continued expansion of working premises on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus continues to strengthen the case for the Cambridge Connect Light Rail.
Planning Application Ref: 22/02771/OUT – Land North of Cambridge North Station Milton Avenue Cambridge Cambridgeshire
Remember that reference number. You’ll need it when you look up the nearly 600 documents submitted by the developers in the Greater Cambridge Planning Service database – which you can browse at https://applications.greatercambridgeplanning.org/online-applications/
Type in the reference number into the search box via the ‘planning’ & ‘simple search’ drop-down menus and you can see the documents. What’s striking about this case isn’t just the complexity of it, but the fact that the developer has already appealed to the Government’s Planning Inspectorate against the councils (being decided by a joint committee of Cambridge City & South Cambridgeshire District Councils) ***before the councils’ joint planning committee has had the chance to judge the case***.
“Whoah! That’s low!”
On paper, the developer has instructed Mills Reeve to instigate proceedings on the grounds of non-determination. Essentially this means the councils have taken too long when considering what the guidelines say is the time it should take for councils to make a judgement.
Above – a snapshot from the Mills & Reeve letter to the Planning Inspectorate dated 23 January 2023.
The problem is that the councils were still waiting for more assessments and third party correspondence to get back to them. We can see this from the third party comments some of which were published up to a month later.
Above – a snapshot of the most recent planning documents for outline planning permission at the sites just north of the North Cambridge Railway Station.
“That’s not the Developer’s problem though”
And this is where we come back to problems in Central Government where, in their drive for austerity *and* trying to ‘reduce costs for business’, ministers have ended up hollowing out essential local government functions that businesses – especially small-medium sized firms – are dependent on. For example we know that the Secretary of State (Michael Gove) agreed to meet with the Liberal Democrats’ MP for St Alban’s, Daisy Cooper after she pinned him down in the Commons over the fact that hard-pressed district-level councils have to subsidise the fees of wealthy developers in the planning system. Have a watch:
One of the results of that seems to be a consultation on changing the fees – as the correspondence from the Housing Minister of 28 February 2023 (I can’t keep up with the changes – it’s no longer the MP for South East Cambridgeshire who is now the Culture Secretary) to the House of Commons Committee for Levelling Up, Communities and Local Government.
Above – the table from The Minister for Housing to the Chair of the Commons LUHC Committee
As things stand, planning authorities and the fees they receive will still be below cost-price. Personally I think they should be higher than cost-price so as to enable councils to match the market rate for qualified and talented town planners. That way it’ll be harder for the big boys to poach any council planner who shows even a hint of potential – and furthermore it will force private developers to pay for the full costs of their developments rather than expecting council tax payers and business rate payers to subsidise their costs of business.
“Given that the case is being judged on 22 March 2023, what have council officers recommended?”
“On what grounds?”
Council Officers have provided a nice list:
- Visual and landscape impact
- Comprehensive development
- Safeguarded sites
“Bluddy Hell! I can’t recall a time when a planning application was recommended for refusal by officers ***on so many grounds!***”
“And being rejected on grounds of Ecology, that’s a brave move by the developers to bring forward such a set of proposals in a city full of radical environmentalists!”
Don’t encourage them.
Just don’t. You know what the present Home Secretary is like. Don’t do anything stoopid. Like gettin’ yerself jailed under her new regime!
“What has Cambridge PPF said?”
Good question – let’s see:
“The application will be decided by local politicians on 22 March 2023 and it is expected to be refused. Brookgate doesn’t want to wait for the outcome, they have already asked for a planning inquiry which has been scheduled for June. So, what can we do as citizens to have a say in the future of our city? You can give your views to the council, and they will also be made available to the planning inquiry. Email them to email@example.com and reference ‘Land north of Cambridge North Station’. “Cambridge PPF – The Great Wall of North East Cambridge
People can also email their councillors & local MPs -> https://www.writetothem.com/ – especially important for those that live outside Cambridge constituency as it involves getting Conservative MPs involved.
Essentially the comments from the planning officers make for useful reference points. To summarise:
“…the proposals result in harm to the surrounding landscape and Green Belt, particularly on the eastern edge of the site, and to the urban area and its relationship with the wider North East Cambridge Area, the City skyline and the landscape beyond.”
“The planning application fails to provide high quality public open space or a public realm which would result in a well-designed coherent sense of place that contributes to local distinctiveness”P3 of the Officers’ report
Above – similar to more than a few applications I could describe – hence my personal disdain for ‘pocket parks’ in large developments. Better to have larger open spaces with somewhere big enough for teenagers to play team games. That’s my personal ‘generic’ standard for what constitutes a large open green space. With that in mind: Page 5
“The proposals fail to provide sufficient formal children’s play space which is convenient for residents to use, clearly distinguished from the public realm and not bisected by vehicular routes.”P5 of the Officers’ report
Now, look at this in the context of the Open Spaces & Recreation Topic Paper of proposed NECAAP presented by planning officers to councillors in late 2021. (Appendix H4 of here if the previous link does not work)
“The eastern edge of the site is particularly sensitive due to its long views over the
River Cam across the Green Belt towards the City… [Brookgate’s] proposals, due to their height and massing, create an abrupt, hard edge that fails to enhance or preserve the character of the area and is not sympathetic to or in keeping with the site’s context in the wider landscape including the setting of the City“ [p3]
For those of you unfamiliar with the geography, the area the application refers to is the bit between Cambridge North Station and the yellow blocks south of Milton Country Park and the A14 – ie the brown, green, orange, and sky blue areas.
Above – from Appendix D of the meeting where Cambridge City Councillors assessed the North East Cambridge Area Action Plan. This provides a much wider context of which the developers were supposed to be working in partnership with other developers.
Above – from p35 of Appendix H4
“Are the partner developers happy?”
Of course not! And so they’ve instructed lawyers to object on their behalf – noting the date if the letter from Carter Jonas.
Above – from Consultee Comments published by GCPS 09 March 2023
Given the sums involved and the massive commercial interests, I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the start of some very serious negotiations between the two sides to see if they can come to some sort of an agreement so as to persuade the masterplanners U + I and TOWN to withdraw their objection. It doesn’t end there though. The Environment Agency has also objected formally on grounds of water abstraction from such a huge development.
…to which some have said that the water harvesting technologies available might be able to mitigate for this. The problem is it is the developer’s responsibility to provide the evidence for this. By the looks of things they have not done so. Hence the objection.
“Going by the Officers’ Report and the nature of the objections, the whole thing looks rushed? Why the haste?”
I don’t know.
I can only speculate that they are putting in such an objectionable application now to see what councillors leave out of their ‘reasons for refusal’ so that when they come back with a more refined application, councillors won’t be able to include new reasons for refusal. I’ve seen it happen before – for example where a first refusal did not mention ‘poor design’ as a reason for refusal first time around, so were unable to mention it as a reason for refusal second time around.
It may also be a tactical move to restrict the flexibility of planning officers and councillors in negotiations with developers where the Planning Inspector has set out what they consider to be ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’. Even in the event of a refusal of the present application being upheld by the Planning Inspector, the parts deemed ‘acceptable’ can be carried over into the revised proposals.
Which sounds infuriating, but that is what the planning system signed off by The Conservative ministers in 2011 (but actually has a much longer history than that) enables. Which is why I come back to my point that if Brookgate didn’t exist, someone else would have invented the equivalent organisation to have done the same thing. Hence tempering my rage and fury at individual firms – or even individual persons, and focusing what limited capacity I have in my present state on systems and structures. Because if the future government after the next general election isn’t going to overhaul things, expect to see things like this continue.
Unpicking ‘Good for business’ political rhetoric
What might be financially beneficial for some firms are not necessarily beneficial for others. One of the old skool introductions to the basics of ‘considering the environment’ in free market economics back in the 1990s (I studied it for A-level and hold a degree in the subject) was the case study of the steel works vs the local fishing industry. If you allow the steel firm to pollute without restriction, it kills all the fish – and the industry. Stopping all of the pollution from the steel works shuts down the steel works. So what’s the ‘equilibrium’? How much should the steel works pay for pollution mitigation and prevention? The additional costs are passed onto the customer in price rises for steel and you get the reduction in steel output. But such are the nature of some of the pollutants in heavy industry that even a small amount can devastate nearby industries. Also the model doesn’t cover for industrial accidents.
At a more local level, compare Anglian Water’s record on sewage being released into the River Cam, and into its tributaries. Regulatory and policy failures – the latter stopping at ministerial desks – are putting at risks the livelihoods of those whose industries are dependent on say the riverside tourist trade. Who wants to go punting in a sewage stream?
So for all the ‘Our political party is the party for business’ rhetoric, wouldn’t it be better to come up with something that indicated how they were going to remove the loopholes that were being exploited by large/wealthy firms, and simplify things in favour of small businesses and the public? Think of the groups of people and small businesses who are conspicuous by their absence at public policy events? I was talking to a fellow resident recently about being one of the few or only visibly non-White person in the room at corporate events. (All the more awkward when you’re one of the keynote speakers – as I was on more than one occasion in my Whitehall days!)
And that’s what I think I should end on. For all the life sciences rhetoric we get about Cambridge’s economy, we are a city. And a city made up not just of people who live within our 1935-era boundaries, but also students, commuters, and regular visitors – for example people such as my late uncle, or my brother-in-law, who lived / live in a neighbouring county but who were/are up visiting almost weekly sometimes because they have family here. Cambridge does not need to become over-dependent on one economic sector. Yet the way our economic systems and institutions are structured, it feels like our city is being railroaded down that track. And it does not need to be like this. Cities need that diversity of industries and activities to thrive. The current land prices bubble is having the opposite impact. And for at least the past couple of decades, no one in local or national government seems to know how to deal with this.
Food for thought?
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